THE ZECKENDORF FOLLIES

It's hard for those who love art to understand why some would seek it out only to destroy it. What is the motive of the vandal who slashes a painting or defaces a sculpture? Is he deranged?

It's different with architecture. No one would consider out-of-town hotel magnate Fred Kummer pathological, even though he aims to destroy one of the finest and best-known works of architecture in the Rocky Mountain West, I. M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza. No, the absentee owner leans toward this premeditated act of vandalism as a result of simple greed.

Kummer purchased the 1950s-era complex last fall for the sum of $37 million and immediately asked the city for 80 percent of that back in change by requesting a $30 million public subsidy from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority. Then the new landlord's in-house developer/designers, HBE, in consultation with Denver architect George Hoover (a designer hardly skilled at the art of historic preservation, as he proved with his inept proposal for the Central Library), suggested a set of additions and subtractions. The latter included the demolition of the famous hyperbolic paraboloid and its replacement with an "elegant glass box."

In response to the threat posed by Kummer's plans, Historic Denver asked the Denver Landmarks Commission to designate the plaza a historic district. At a public hearing held April 18, representatives of Denver's architecture and preservation community went to bat for the Pei-designed gem. The Modern Architecture Preservation League, the Colorado Historical Society, several chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the National Trust for Historic Preservation all endorsed the effort to save the plaza. So did a variety of neighborhood groups and individual citizens.

Then Kummer attorney Andy Loewi, from the Denver law firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber & Strickland, attempted to contradict the testimony presented by those groups. The first red herring Loewi produced was the already discredited story that the plaza was not the work of Pei. But herrings, even red ones, quickly start to smell when subjected to the heat and light of public scrutiny. Surely it must have taken courage--or should that be temerity?--for Loewi to call into question the eyewitness recall of former Pei associate Alan Gass while the fuming elderly architect sat only a few feet away. Especially since Gass was backed up by a statement from Henry Cobb, who has headed the Pei firm since the elderly master retired and who was intimately involved in the design of Zeckendorf Plaza. (So much so, in fact, that it is to the reluctant Cobb that Loewi has tried to give design credit.)

But as he continued his presentation, Loewi seemed to admit that even he knew Pei had designed the complex. The owner's lawyer suggested that Zeckendorf Plaza was not one of Pei's better efforts--and even underlined the point by citing a characteristically modest quote from Pei in which the architect called the work he did in the 1950s "merely adequate." It was hardly surprising that Loewi had trouble understanding what Pei meant: The concept of humility, so familiar to artists, is a foreign idea to most lawyers.

Loewi's testimony included every anti-preservation trick in the book, including the long-discredited idea that landmarking constitutes a "public taking." But the law in this area is clear. Since the famous Penn Central case hit the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978, the right of cities to identify and preserve historic properties has not been considered a "taking," and the principles of that case have been reaffirmed unanimously by the court as recently as 1993. Anyway, one does not need to be a legal scholar to see that what's happening at Zeckendorf Plaza is not so much a "public taking" as it is the public being taken.

Before testimony concluded at the April hearing, Kummer's position was bolstered by DURA and Downtown Denver Inc., which both oppose landmarking. Next came a rancorous discussion about convening a secret executive session, with strong objections from some members of the press leading the commission to vote to hold its deliberations in public on April 23. Before the meeting convened, commissioner Sharon Nunnally chided the owner's team for its relentless bashing of Historic Denver. At that point, Loewi said he hoped he hadn't unintentionally taken part in that kind of thing. Loewi's statement broke the heavy tension at the hearing, causing nearly everyone there to burst out laughing.

At the subsequent April 23 meeting, it became clear that by any objective measure, Zeckendorf Plaza is exactly the kind of architecture the Denver Landmark ordinance was created to protect. To be declared eligible for historic designation, a work of Denver architecture typically is required to meet at least two of ten criteria that have been set out by the Landmarks Commission. In the case of Zeckendorf Plaza, nine of the ten were met.

Commissioner Seth Rosenman led the criticism of Kummer's objections, which Loewi had submitted in a phone-book-sized document. Rosenman said it appeared that Kummer's hired guns had come to their conclusion first and then woven their evidence out of whole cloth, highlighting information that bolstered their claims and ignoring that which didn't. Before closing deliberations, the commission scheduled a vote on the issue at its next regular meeting on May 2. It was at that meeting that Zeckendorf Plaza cleared its first important hurdle, being named eligible for landmark protection by a unanimous vote of the commission.

At this point, it might be appropriate to ask where Mayor Wellington Webb's appointed planning director, Jennifer Moulton, stands on all this. Moulton has taken a decidedly low-profile approach to the Zeckendorf project, failing to even show up at either the April 23 or May 2 meetings. This is hardly surprising, since the former head of Historic Denver turned her back on preservation long before the current struggle.

And what about DURA? Denver citizens might expect that the whole Zeckendorf struggle could have been avoided had DURA provided credible leadership. It would have been well within DURA's rights to demand that Kummer respect the plaza in exchange for the public largess he expects. But DURA has never been a genuine friend of preservation, even if executive director Susan Powers has brought up the agency's relatively paltry $1 million contribution to the rehab of the Denver Dry building once for every dollar the agency devoted to the project.

Powers doesn't even pretend to embrace preservation with regard to Zeckendorf Plaza. It's hard to tell who she represents, since she's most often seen shilling for Kummer instead of safeguarding the public interest. A good example of her attitude occurred at the City Club on April 25, when Powers, with a mixture of contempt and ridicule, said she couldn't see how anyone could associate Pei's pyramidal paraboloid in Denver with Pei's pyramidal atrium at the Louvre in Paris. The admission by Powers that she was incapable of making even this extremely simple formal comparison--something surely even many children could do--may have been inadvertent. But it does tend to put her credibility on the topic of architecture into question.

Her defenders argue that what Powers lacks in architectural sophistication she makes up for in business acumen. The trouble with this view is her rotten track record. Before coming to DURA, Powers headed up Englewood's renewal authority from 1981 to 1987. Her principal activity then was a project that cost old downtown Englewood its only signature small-town block, which was cleared to create space for a new retail center. Powers bailed out of Englewood before the chickens came home to roost in the form of a renewal-authority bond default in 1991. And the comedy of errors over which she presided in Englewood will only be complete with the demolition, later this year, of some of those new retail shops Powers helped get built, the mostly never occupied Trolley Square. Notice that preservationists have not rallied to save the shopette, which stands for now as a memorial to Powers's failure as a commercial visionary.

If Powers successes are elusive, not so the triumphs for historic preservation. While Powers was enabling pie-in-the-sky schemes down in Englewood ten years ago, historic preservationists in Denver were laying the groundwork, through the creation of a landmark district, for the LoDo renaissance of today. Without landmark protection, the neighborhood would surely have been a sea of surface parking by the time Coors Field got there. There would have been no bustling success story, because there would have been no buildings left to turn into the luxury lofts, swank galleries and crowded nightclubs that now fill the neighborhood. The situation is the same at Zeckendorf Plaza today as it was in LoDo in the 1980s. And once again, the preservationists are right.

Sometime next month the next chapter in the biggest preservation struggle of the decade will unfold. At last word, the Denver City Council was scheduled to take up the question of historic landmark protection for Zeckendorf Plaza at its June 19 meeting.

Whenever the issue does come before the council, Denver will face an acid test of its civic will and character. Shame on us if we fail.

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